Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

April 5, 2009

House Finch sets up housekeeping

House Finch female in Saguaro cactus nest site

House Finch female in Saguaro cactus nest site

The Subject

I’ve never thought of the House Finch as a cavity nester, so when I saw this bird at a Saguaro at the Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ, I had to spend some time watching. The strange shape of the cavity made it easy to see it really has a nest inside the cavity, and I had no doubts about how I should compose this image.

The Situation

Luckily, the cavity is about 6-7 feet off the ground, faces east, and has a clean sight line from a nearby mesquite tree just long enough for my 300 and 2x combo. I set up the tripod at full height, carefully framed the dual opening with a vertical format, checked my verticals with the grid lines inside the Nikon D200 finder, and locked down the knobs on the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head and Wimberly Sidekick to maintain the composition.

The early morning light illuminated the face of the Saguaro nicely and was low enough to put good light on the nest revealed in the lower opening – later in the day there’d be too much shadow on the nest and a lot of the story of the image would be lost.

The female House Finch made repeated flights to the upper cavity, so I had many opportunities to get various body positions. I made the auto focus sensor that corresponded to the bird in the upper cavity active and stopped down the lens to f/10 hoping it would give me enough depth of field to cover the nest out to the cactus ridges and maybe the spines. Setting the ISO to 320 got the shutter speed up to 1/90th second: good enough if the finch paused in the opening. I kept the meter set to Matrix since it was an easy scene to deal with.

At this point all I needed to do was be patient, watch the finch come and go, and fire the shutter when the finch paused in an attractive position.

The Image

This image satisfies me on many levels:

  • a common species seen in an uncommon way
  • a strong graphic (from the shape of the opening and the black interior)
  • the three-dimensional look provided by the subtle shadows of the cactus ridges, needles, and cavities
  • the intriguing behavior of building a stick nest inside a cactus cavity
  • the wonderful textures of the Saguaro
  • the understated colors of the female finch
  • the overall complexity of the composition, with interesting lines and textures throughout
  • the dual subjects (bird and nest), each in their dedicated personalized natural frames

I left the Water Ranch with high expectations for this shoot, only worried that once I transfered the raw files to my Mac and viewed them on a large monitor I’d find that I didn’t have enough DOF or I hadn’t caught the finch stationary at the time of exposure. But everything came together as hoped and I’ve got the shot I saw it the field.



  1. I have just started bird watching and picture taking. I came to your site for NJ birds. I am not such a computer genius. Just wanted to thank you for the beautiful peace i found in your pictures….

    Comment by Cori Chyz — April 11, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  2. Welcome to the world of birding and bird photography. When I lived in central New Jersey I was a very active birder and took photos of lots of the birds I saw along the way, and I know you’ll have many opportunities to do the same.

    My NJ photography was in the days of film so you’ll need to look on my old web site to see any of that work – there’s a link to it from my active web site.

    For state of the art bird photography in NJ I suggest you look at the excellent work of Scott Elowitz.

    Comment by richditch — April 11, 2009 @ 10:33 am

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